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SPORTS: Baseball Leafs look back on the season that wasn’t (Oct. 2020)

November 2nd, 2020 · No Comments

With Christie Pits locked down, local players endured a rare summer off the diamond

Grant Tamane lays down a bunt at Christie Pits as Johnathan Solazzo (seated on cooler) looks on. After a season lost to the pandemic, the Toronto Maple Leafs hope to resume playing baseball in 2021. R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS

By R.S. Konjek

For Toronto Maple Leafs outfielder Grant Tamane, it’s been 20 years. Third baseman Johnathan Solazzo figures it to be 23 or 24.

That’s how many years it’s been since they last spent a summer without playing baseball.

 “I did find myself randomly driving to Christie Pits a couple times this summer.”

—Damon Topolie, Manager

Team manager Damon Topolie tops them all. He started playing T-ball at age four, making it more than four decades since he hasn’t played organized baseball in some form.

This is the story of the Leafs’ 2020 season, the season that wasn’t.

Not long after the COVID-19 shutdown in March, the City of Toronto announced the cancellation of several longstanding events including Pride, Luminato, the Caribbean Carnival and the CNE. Most parades, cultural events, and neighbourhood festivals were cancelled. 

The city also called “time” on major sporting events.

Back then, summer still felt a long ways off, but the Leafs – members of the Inter-county Baseball League (IBL) – found their season hanging in the balance.  

In April, three of the league’s eight clubs suspended operations for the year. The remainder, including the Leafs, hung together to wait out the shutdown.

As spring turned to summer, the Leafs hoped that a shortened baseball season could still be played. 

Taking a cue from the scene at Trinity Bellwoods Park, team owner Jack Dominico envisioned a scenario where fans at Christie Pits could be spread out using social distancing circles placed around the hillsides that surround the Leafs’ ballpark. 

Players were told to stay in shape. Solazzo gathered some weights from his neighbours and assembled a homemade gym where he could work out.

“Gyms were closed and it was too cold to go out, but I was still working out, hoping and wishing for a season,” he says.

The league formulated plans for a one-month regular season, followed by a month of playoffs.

Unfortunately, the clock ran out. “It was really close,” says Topolie. “We were days away from starting a season, but municipalities would not release their parks [for organized sports]. In order to start a season we needed to start at the beginning of July, but parks were not released until the middle of the month and others at the end of July.”

On July 9, the IBL announced that it was cancelling an entire season for the first time in its 102-year history.

For the Leafs and their fans there was disappointment, but it could have been worse. Unlike other ball clubs, the Leafs do not charge admission, so they will not take the same financial hit those that rely on ticket sales to fund operations.

With a summer of Sunday afternoons unexpectedly wide open, how did the players occupy their time?

Tamane gave yoga a try, and got himself a dog. 

“Being stuck at home I had a large amount of time to myself, which made me really want a dog,” he says. “I ended up building a fence in my backyard and adopting a two-year-old Husky/Shepherd mix from a rescue. She now takes up all my time, since I get to bring her to work!”

Topolie and Solazzo found ways to bring some baseball into their summer. 

Topolie provided private lessons to younger players, sometimes up to a dozen sessions a week. 

“I did find myself randomly driving to Christie Pits a couple times this summer,” he adds.

In August, Solazzo and teammate Marcus Knecht accepted an invitation to a home run derby organized by the IBL’s Guelph Royals. Eight different players from around the league participated in the event at Hastings Stadium in Guelph.

Accepting the invitation was “a no-brainer,” Solazzo says. 

“It was awesome to see the guys, just to talk shop and see faces you haven’t seen all year.” 

Although neither Leaf won the derby, Solazzo enjoyed the experience and hopes it can become an annual event.

A few swings of the bat in Guelph will go down as the only baseball action for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year, but they are already thinking about 2021.

Topolie will be back as the team’s manager and he also hopes to continue playing. Solazzo confirms that he will be ready to go.

“I am very eager to play ball in 2021,” Tamane says. “I’m just not sure if it will be baseball in the IBL or a local softball team. I live in Paris, so my commute to Bloor and Christie was getting harder and harder each year, but I do it because I love the sport and my teammates are family.”

If things return to normal in 2021, the Leafs will take to the diamond in early May.

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Tags: Annex · Sports